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Save in the Wild West, from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon

SmarterTravel

Before exploring the Grand Canyon’s dusty trails, my wife and I decided to fly to Las Vegas for a different brand of adventure travel. In both places, and all the spots in between, we were able to have a great time while keeping our expenses down.

Getting there

When planning our trip to the Grand Canyon, we decided that flying to Las Vegas would give us not only an extra dose of excitement, but would also increase our chances of getting a great airfare. Since Las Vegas is one of the most popular destinations in the country, airlines are constantly competing for passengers, and this business battle helps to drive prices down. But finding a really good fare still took some work.

I started with a search of current airfare sales covered by SmarterTravel.com. Fortunately, almost all of the major U.S. airlines had just jumped into a nationwide sell-off. Despite the fact that we traveled on the most expensive days of the week (Friday and Sunday), I was able to find round-trip tickets from our hometown of Boston for just $255 each ($290 with all taxes and fees included). Also, the flight out on Friday night was nonstop, another bonus at the end of a work week. I chose to book with Delta, where I have most of my frequent flyer miles, so I could earn even more miles toward a free ticket. For the flights, each of us earned 4,811 miles, and I picked up an additional 1,160 for charging the tickets to my Delta SkyMiles American Express card, which credits Delta purchases with two miles per dollar spent.

Getting around

On the East Coast, at least in the cities, it’s not always essential, or even desirable, to have a car. But out West, where it’s common to travel long distances to reach isolated areas, a set of wheels is really useful.

To find all of the latest sales, I checked SmarterTravel.com’s Car section and was pleased to find that mid-size vehicles were being discounted by several rental companies. We wanted the extra cargo room of a mid-size since we were going to haul our backpacking and camping equipment wherever we went. To get the best rate possible, I checked prices online with each rental company that was participating in the sale. After finding these prices, I then compared them to a quote I received on Hotwire, which I always check last to see if there are any deals that are too good to pass up. In this case, however, Alamo’s rate was the best.

We paid $193 for nine days—just $21 per day—for a Pontiac Grand Am with unlimited mileage. I mention the unlimited mileage because a per-mile charge would’ve cost much more, given that we drove over 1,000 miles on our trip. Another way we avoided overpaying was by charging the rental to a credit card that automatically provides insurance. Learn more about this and other money-saving tips in the SmarterTravel.com article about hidden car rental fees.

In Las Vegas

We decided to spend our first and last nights of the trip in Las Vegas. SmarterTravel.com’s Las Vegas Hotel Guide proved to be an invaluable tool for identifying the areas that were most appealing, and I also learned about a great option for comparing hotel rates from many different sites: Travelaxe. After sizing up rates from this downloadable application against quotes from Orbitz, Hotels.com, and Hotwire, I booked the Lady Luck for our first night and the Stratosphere for our last, paying nightly rates of $63 and $60, respectively. Though our schedule didn’t allow for it, there are often even lower rates on weeknights.

At the Grand Canyon

We were able to save a tremendous amount of money at the Grand Canyon, in large part because we were willing to “rough it” a bit. Rather than staying at a hotel or lodge, we pitched our tent at the Mather Campground for only $15 per night. If you do decide to camp, however, prepare yourself for frigid nights in the fall and winter. In the summer, temperatures are likely to heat up, but you’ll have to contend with masses of fellow visitors, so booking ahead is a very good idea.

After camping at the South Rim, we were ready to head down into the inner Canyon. Luckily, we had made sure to apply for a backcountry camping permit well ahead of time. According to the National Park Service, the Grand Canyon alone received 30,000 permit requests and ultimately issued just 13,000 permits.

Though you’ll save money by camping—it’s only $10 per permit (plus $5 for each camper)—you’ll also have to lug all your equipment down to the bottom, not to mention all the way back up again. A more convenient option is to stay at the nearby Phantom Ranch, though this is typically booked up far in advance, and nightly rates are $26 per person for a dorm bed.

Although camping was quite comfortable, we were in no shape to sleep on the ground for a third straight night after clambering over nine miles to get back to the South Rim. Thankfully, we had considered this before leaving home and booked ourselves into the Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins, which had the lowest rates of all the Grand Canyon indoor accommodations. For $59 per night, we were given a clean, comfortable room that afforded us some much-needed rest. Conveniently, I was able to book online with Xanterra, “the nation’s largest park-management company.”

For the next four nights, we stayed with friends in Flagstaff, Arizona—a surefire way to economize and end our trip on a high note.

From the glow of the Vegas neon to the Grand Canyon’s majestic night sky, this vacation provided both excitement and tranquility. The fact that we spent much less money than we could have only adds to the good memories.

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